Sustainable Infrastructure in 2019

Forward-thinking utilities are setting the example for creating more sustainable infrastructure systems for the future

By Kate Diamond

I am lucky to live in California where the existential threat of climate change is not only discussed, but where the policies and regulations at the State, County, and Local level are actively changing the way we can work to decarbonize our future. Clearly what has changed drastically is the timeline of accelerated change necessary if we want to keep climate change to less than 4° Celsius – assuming tragically that we are probably too late to keep it below 2° Celsius. The city and the county of Los Angeles have been leading the way with their bold, ambitious plans called the Green New Deal and OurCounty Sustainability Plan. What sets these plans apart is their comprehensive engagement with the environment, the economy, and equity at a scale that affects buildings, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and whole regions. They set target goals and dates that will require moon-shot levels of effort by both the public and the private sector; utility companies clearly have an enormous role in achieving these ambitious targets.

As an architect who bleeds deep green, I try to balance realistic pessimism when faced with the threats posed by climate change with an inbred optimism inherent in our profession that we can design and invent a better future. Several recent projects for key Southern California infrastructure clients have demonstrated both how big the challenge is and yet have maintained my optimism for future generations. The first set of projects being District Power Yards for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and the second being a new Administrative Headquarters for the Orange County Sanitation District. What is most impressive about both of these clients is that they are not only amazingly out there on the sustainability frontline with the services they provide, but also their commitment to walk the talk with their own facilities to demonstrate that Net Zero Energy, critical resiliency, and even Net Zero Embodied Carbon are achievable within the constraints of responsible building designs.

LADWP is the largest municipal water and power utility in the nation; they are committed to delivering reliable, safe water and electricity at competitive prices while moving forward with a comprehensive plan to green the grid. LADWP plays a pivotal role in achieving many of the Green New Deal goals, including, but not limited to, phasing out natural gas operations at three existing power plants within the LA Basin while at the same time providing enough power to support the electrification of transportation. The two new District Power Yards presently being designed are intended to create a model for all future yards, and to demonstrate to the public that there is a viable pathway to a green future. There are three key innovative strategies that contribute to Net Zero Energy/Resilient designs:

  1. Passive & Active Strategies for Energy Conservation including enhanced building envelope performance, hybrid natural ventilation with displacement air conditioning and fan back-up solar chimneys.
  2. Provide clean and local energy with a facility that achieves Net Zero Energy or better, and LEED Gold with a pathway to LEED Platinum.
  3. Meet the requirements of an Essential Facility capable of surviving a major seismic event and remaining operational to restore power service to the City of Los Angeles.

The OC Sanitation District is both one of the largest wastewater treatment facilities and an internationally recognized pioneer in partnership with the OC Water District for developing the world’s largest water purification plant for groundwater recharge. Always conscious of their role as stewards of their rate-payers’ fees, they deliver responsible sustainability for sewage treatment that meets or exceeds state and federal mandates to protect the water, the air, and the Pacific Ocean. As Southern California moves towards next-generation thinking about reducing our reliance on imported water – both because it requires enormous energy to convey the water and because it will become an increasingly precious resource – OC Sanitation District will be leading us forward with strategies for optimizing local water. For their new Administrative Headquarters, HDR worked with the District to demonstrate that using integrated sustainable strategies from day one in the design process transformed them into cost effective design drivers rather than potentially costly additions. These are key innovative strategies that contribute to a Net Zero Energy/Carbon Neutral design:

  1. Passive & Active Strategies for Energy Conservation including enhanced daylighting, high-performance envelope, and high-performance building systems such as active chilled beams.
  2. Offset the reduced energy use with a combination of circular capture of methane from the sewage treatment to power a cogeneration plant combined with on-site PVs.
  3. Introducing Mass Timber to Southern California for both a lighter building and Carbon Sequestration.

Hopefully these examples will trigger a robust exploration of how all aspects of our infrastructure systems can respond to the challenges we face in accelerating the reduction of greenhouse gases so that we can keep the rise of global temperatures below the catastrophic 4° and how we can begin to develop resiliency strategies that address the changes that have already been triggered. Greta Thunberg challenged all of the world leaders to restore her generation’s future. Our leaders can’t do it alone – they need leadership at all levels of the public and private sectors. Innovation will transform both operational and design processes. Let’s share and learn together.

Kate Diamond AIA, LEED AP, is the Civic Design Director for HDR Inc. At HDR, she oversees design for civic, science + technology and academic projects. To learn more, visit